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November - The Month Of Trump And Modi

30/11/2016 11:21

It was at my aunt's home in Paris that I woke up to the news that Hillary Clinton had failed to smash the hardest of all ceilings, allowing Donald Trump to become the President-elect. We thought of our American Muslim relatives, pocketed in the San Francisco bay area and New York State and wondered if they really would have to add their names to a national Muslim registry. I explained to my mother and aunt the last time a people had been forced to register their presence in a country they called home. The mention of historical Europe soon led to nervous conversation about the possibility of a win by Marine Le Pen and her National Front in the Presidential election which is only six months away in France. The anxiousness on the subject of Le Pen, however, soon gave way to pure astonishment at the news coming from India about the ban on the 1000 (£12) and 500 (£6) rupee.

On the 8th of November, the Indian government under the premiership of Mr Modi withdrew the two bank notes as part of their anti-corruption measures to target 'black money' and tax evasion. Indian news channels, however, reveal that it's the low income Indians, the traders and savers who have been hit as India is mainly a cash economy.

Seeing the images of the poor and low income class struggle under the effects of the ban brought back memories for my mum of a generation of relatives who had, under the rule of the British Empire which encouraged travel between the colonies, left India to set up home and successful businesses in Burma (now Myanmar). Decades later they lost their entire livelihoods after the Burmese coup d'etat on the 2nd of March 1962. The military replaced the civilian government in Burma and in 1963 issued a decree that 50 and 100 Kyat notes would cease to be legal tender, alleging that they were subject to hoarding by black marketers. Though limited compensation was offered, people's life savings were wiped out overnight leaving these relatives with no choice but to return destitute to India, a place which was no longer home. It's not the first time I've heard stories of 50 and 100 Kyat notes being used to light cooking fires.

It seems half a century on, much like those relatives, I too will be able to burn bank notes which were hard earned in pounds and are now worthless as rupees. Back in the UK and in possession of 10,000 rupees (about £100) I visited two Indian banks in the City of London with the hope of exchanging the rupees for pounds. The currency was the amount left unspent from the last India holiday, considered pocket change and saved for future trips for the airport taxi, food and tips.

Standing with a dripping umbrella, I found the State Bank of India's employee not impressive at all; she turned away from me as if I was some sort of beggar pleading for a few pence. The Punjab National Bank employee was a little more sympathetic, advising that I should travel to India to change my money.

He was met with bewilderment on my part. 'An airline ticket costs £500 at least. I only want to exchange £100. And anyway, even if I had more to exchange, I have a life, commitments here. I can't just get on a plane and travel to India to change money!'

'There's nothing we can do Maam. I'm sorry. I am in the same boat. I too have a few hundred pounds worth in rupees that are now worthless.'

'So people are just going to take this? Lose money because Mr Modi decided to ban the most commonly used bank notes without instruction to foreign based banks to exchange the rupees?'
'It is just the way it is. What can we do, Maam?'

In a world now dominated by the likes of Trump and Modi, what can we do indeed?

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl

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